15 year-old Mia’s life is claustrophobic. The council estate flat that she shares with her mother and sister is tiny. The corridors are tiny, and filled with young people who swear in ways that would make Mickey Rourke blush. Her mother seems to care little for her; in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anyone to care for Mia. She spends her days breaking into an empty flat to practice dancing while looking out over the landscape outside of the estate, but it offers no hope. That is, until Mum gets a new boyfriend who seems too good to be true. Andrea Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank, bursts out of the gate from the first frame and doesn’t let the viewer have a moment’s rest.
Framed in a 4×3 aspect ratio to keep this idea of claustrophobia, Arnold has created another gut-wrenching story. And she is not one to reveal her secrets easily, like her main character. The title suggests the claustrophobic and exposed world Mia lives in. In such tight quarters there is nowhere to hide. Mia develops a crush on her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (played by the continually amazing Michael Fassbender). He takes the family to a country pub and expresses an interest in Mia’s dancing, which he encourages her pursue. One night Mia spies through the door on her mother and Connor as they are having sex, the look on her face suggesting she is imagining herself in her mother’s place. Mia can turn from angry to vulnerable and back again at the drop of a hat, sometimes resorting to actions that would seem almost too extreme, too violent, too harsh. But Arnold then takes us back to the world Mia occupies: how can she possible find a way out when she is banging her head against a glass wall?
These are not necessarily people who just need some help; some of them are awful. But they are trapped and the only ways out offered to them may be just as hopeless. Michael Fassbender is amazing as always, but the real revelation of this film is Katie Jarvis, who with nary a drama class, conveys Mia as a girl not so street smart as she would like to think, and capable of acts both brave and horrifying. Arnold’s script and camera close in and tear apart ideas of the poor, youth, and what makes a good man.